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Girish Karnad
Indian playwright

Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Indian playwright
Was Writer Actor Stage actor Translator Screenwriter Film director Linguist Film actor Author
From India
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature Social science
Gender male
Birth 19 May 1938, Matheran, India
Death 10 June 2019, Bengaluru, India (aged 81 years)
Star sign Taurus
Children: Raghu Karnad
Karnatak University Bachelor of Arts (-1958)
Lincoln College Master of Arts 1960-1963
Notable Works
Tale Danda  
Jnanpith Award 1998
Padma Bhushan 1992
Sahitya Akademi Award 1994
Padma Shri in arts 1974
Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 1972
Rhodes Scholarship 1960
The details (from wikipedia)


Girish Karnad (19 May 1938 – 10 June 2019) was an Indian actor, film director, Kannada writer, playwright and a Rhodes Scholar, who predominantly worked in South Indian cinema and Bollywood.


His rise as a playwright in the 1960s marked the coming of age of modern Indian playwriting in Kannada, just as Badal Sarkar did in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi. He was a recipient of the 1998 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary honour conferred in India.

For four decades Karnad composed plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. He translated his plays into English and received acclaim.

His plays have been translated into some Indian languages and directed by directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, B. V. Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan, Amal Allanaa and Zafer Mohiuddin.

He was active in the world of Indian cinema working as an actor, director and screenwriter, in Hindi and Kannada cinema, and has earned awards.

He was conferred Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India and won four Filmfare Awards, of which three are Filmfare Award for Best Director – Kannada and the fourth a Filmfare Best Screenplay Award. He was a presenter for a weekly science magazine programme called "Turning Point" that aired on Doordarshan in 1991.

Early life and education

Girish Karnad was born in Matheran, in present-day Maharashtra, in 1938. His mother Krishnabai née Mankikar was a young widow with a son who belonged to a poor Brahmin family. Since it was necessary for her to earn a living, she began working as a nurse and cook (general housekeeper) for the bedridden wife of a certain Dr. Raghunath Karnad, a doctor in the Bombay Medical Services.

Some five years later, and while the first wife was still alive, Krishnabai and Dr. Raghunath Karnad were married in a private ceremony. The marriage was controversial not because of bigamy (it was legal until 1956 for a Hindu man to have more than one wife) but because of the then prevailing social prejudice against widow remarriage. Therefore, the wedding was held privately, and under the dispensation of the Arya Samaj, a reform organization which condones widow remarriage. Girish was the third of the four children born thereafter.

Karnad's initial schooling was in Marathi. Later, after his father was transferred to Sirsi in the Kannada-speaking regions of Bombay Presidency, Karnad was exposed to travelling theatre groups and natak mandalis (theatre troups), which were experience a period of efflorescnce during the iconic Balgandharva era . As a youngster, he was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theater in his village. His family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka when he was fourteen, where he grew up with his two sisters and a niece.

He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and statistics from Karnatak Arts College, Dharwad (Karnataka University), in 1958. After graduation, he went to England and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (1960–63), earning his Master of Arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics. Karnad was elected the President of the Oxford Union in 1962–63.


After working with the Oxford University Press, Chennai for seven years (1963–70), he resigned to take to writing full-time. While in Madras (now known as Chennai) he got involved with local amateur theatre group, The Madras Players.

During 1987–88, he was at the University of Chicago as visiting professor and Fulbright playwright-in-residence. During his tenure at Chicago Nagamandala had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis based on Karnad's English translation of the Kannada original.

He served as director of the Film and Television Institute of India (1974–1975) and chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national academy of the performing arts (1988–93). He served as director of the Nehru Centre and as Minister of Culture, in the Indian High Commission, London (2000–2003).


Karnad is known as a playwright. His plays, written in Kannada, have been translated into English (mostly translated by himself) and some Indian languages. Kannada is his language of choice.

When Karnad started writing plays, Kannada literature was highly influenced by the renaissance in Western literature. Writers would choose a subject that looked entirely alien to manifestation of native soil. C. Rajagopalachari's version of the Mahabharata published in 1951, left a deep impact on him and soon, sometime in the mid-1950s, one day he experienced a rush of dialogues by characters from the Mahabharata in Kannada.

"I could actually hear the dialogues being spoken into my ears ... I was just the scribe," said Karnad in a later interview. Yayati was published in 1961, when he was 23 years old. It is based on the story of King Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas, who was cursed into premature old age by his preceptor, Shukracharya, who was incensed at Yayati's infidelity.

Yayati in turn asks his sons to sacrifice their youth for him, and one of them agrees. It ridicules the ironies of life through characters in Mahabharata. The play in Hindi was adapted by Satyadev Dubey and Amrish Puri was lead actor for the play. It became an instant success, immediately translated and staged in several other Indian languages.

Karnad found a new approach of drawing historical and mythological sources to tackle contemporary themes and existentialist crisis of modern man through characters locked in psychological and philosophical conflicts. His next was Tughlaq (1964), about a rashly idealist 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq, and allegory on the Nehruvian era which started with ambitious idealism and ended up in disillusionment. This established Karnad, now 26 years old, as a promising playwright in the country. It was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Ebrahim Alkazi, with the actor Manohar Singh, playing the visionary king who later becomes disillusioned and turns bitter, amidst the historic Purana Qila in Delhi. It was staged in London by the National School of Drama for the Festival of India in 1982.

Hayavadana (1971) was based on a theme drawn from The Transposed Heads, a 1940 novella by Thomas Mann, which is originally found in the 11th-century Sanskrit text Kathasaritsagara. Herein he employed the folk theatre form of Yakshagana. A German version of the play was directed by Vijaya Mehta as part of the repertoire of the Deutsches National Theatre, Weimar.

Naga-Mandala (Play with Cobra, 1988) was based on a folk tale related to him by A. K. Ramanujam, brought him the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the Most Creative Work of 1989. It was directed by J. Garland Wright, as part of the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis. The theatre subsequently commissioned him to write the play, Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain). Though before it came Taledanda (Death by Beheading, 1990) which used the backdrop, the rise of Veerashaivism, a radical protest and reform movement in 12th century Karnataka to bring out current issues.


Karnad made his acting as well as screenwriting debut in a Kannada movie, Samskara (1970), based on a novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. That movie won the first President's Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema.

In television, he played the role of Swami's father in the TV series Malgudi Days (1986–1987), based on R. K. Narayan's books, directed by Kannada actor and director Shankar Nag. He also hosted the science magazine Turning Point on Doordarshan, in the early 1990s.

He made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), based on a Kannada novel by S. L. Bhyrappa. It won him National Film Award for Best Direction along with B. V. Karanth, who co-directed the film. Later, Karnad directed several movies in Kannada and Hindi, including Godhuli (1977) and Utsav (1984). Karnad has made number of documentaries, like one on the Kannada poet D. R. Bendre (1972), Kanaka-Purandara (English, 1988) on two medieval Bhakti poets of Karnataka, Kanaka Dasa and Purandara Dasa, and The Lamp in the Niche (English, 1989) on Sufism and the Bhakti movement. Many of his films and documentaries have won several national and international awards.

Some of his famous Kannada movies include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Ondanondu Kaladalli, Cheluvi and Kaadu and most recent film Kanooru Heggaditi (1999), based on a novel by Kannada writer Kuvempu.

His Hindi movies include Nishaant (1975), Manthan (1976), Swami (1977) and Pukar (2000). He has acted in a number of Nagesh Kukunoor films, starting with Iqbal (2005), where Karnad's role of the ruthless cricket coach got him critical acclaim. This was followed by Dor (2006), 8 x 10 Tasveer (2009) and Aashayein (2010). He played a key role in movies "Ek Tha Tiger"(2012) and its sequel "Tiger Zinda Hai"(2017) produced by Yash Raj Films.

Karnad has acted in the Kannada gangster movie Aa Dinagalu.

Other works

He provided the voice of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, in the audiobook of Kalam's autobiography by Charkha Audiobooks, Wings of Fire.

Awards and honours

For literature

  • Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Varthur navya Award – 1972
  • Padma Shri – 1974
  • Padma Bhushan – 1992
  • Kannada Sahitya Parishat Award – 1992
  • Sahitya Academy award – 1994
  • Jnanapith Award – 1998
  • Kalidas Samman – 1998
  • Rajyotsava Award
  • Honorary degree by University of Southern California, Los Angeles – 2011

For Cinema

National Film Awards

  • 1971: Best Direction: Vamsha Vriksha (with B. V. Karanth)
  • 1971: Best Feature Film in Kannada: Vamsha Vriksha
  • 1973: Second Best Feature Film: Kaadu
  • 1977: Best Feature Film in Kannada: Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane
  • 1978: Best Screenplay: Bhumika (with Shyam Benegal and Satyadev Dubey)
  • 1978: Best Feature Film in Kannada: Ondanondu Kaladalli
  • 1989: Best Non-Feature Film: Kanaka Purandara
  • 1990: Best Non-feature Film on Social Issues: The Lamp in the Niche
  • 1992: Best Film on Environment Conservation: Cheluvi
  • 1999: Best Feature Film in Kannada: Kaanuru Heggadathi

Filmfare Awards South

  • 1972: Filmfare Award for Best Director - Kannada – Vamsha Vriksha
  • 1974: Filmfare Award for Best Director - Kannada – Kaadu
  • 1978: Filmfare Award for Best Director - Kannada – Ondanondu Kaladalli
  • 1983: Filmfare Award for Best Actor - Kannada - Ananda Bhairavi

Filmfare Awards Hindi

  • 1980: Filmfare Best Screenplay Award: Godhuli (with B. V. Karanth)
  • 1980: Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award: Aasha: Nominated
  • 1982: Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award: Teri Kasam : Nominated

Karnataka State Film Awards

  • 1971-72 First Best Film – Vamsha Vriksha
  • 1971-72 Best Dialogue Writer – Vamsha Vriksha
  • 1973-74 Second Best Film – Kaadu
  • 1989-90 Best Supporting Actor – Santha Shishunala Sharifa
  • 1995-96 Best Supporting Actor – Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai
  • 1999-00 Second Best Film – Kanooru Heggadithi


  • Gubbi Veeranna Award for his services to theatre (as a playwright)
  • Karnad served as the director of the Film and Television Institute of India from 1974 to 1975, the Indian co-chairman for the Joint Media Committee of the Indo-US Sub-Commission on Education and Culture from 1984 to 1993, chairman of the Sangeet Natak Academy from 1988 to 1993, and president of Karnataka Nataka Academy from 1976 to 1978.
  • Honorary Doctorate from University of Southern California, Los Angeles – 2011
  • 1996 -Dr.T.M.A.Pai Konkani Distinguished Achievement Award for Performing Arts


At the Tata Literary Festival held in Mumbai in 2012, Karnad was invited to speak about "his life in theater" in an hour-long session. Instead of talking about the subject, he took the opportunity to lash out at V. S. Naipaul for his "antipathy towards Indian Muslims". V. S. Naipaul had earlier been conferred the Lifetime achievement award by the festival's organisers. Karnad also criticized the organizers for having honored Naipaul.

The audience, which had gathered to hear Karnad speak, had mixed reactions to the speech. Some, like organizer Anil Dharker, tried ineffectually to steer the speech toward less controversial waters. Others were amused by the episode, and some commented on the research and logic that had gone into the speech (unfortunately overshadowed by its 'scandalous' nature).

Just a few weeks after this, Karnad again created controversy by claiming that Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote India's national anthem, was a great poet but a second-rate playwright.

In November 2015, during celebrations marking the anniversary of 18th-century Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan's birth, Karnad stated that Bangalore International Airport should have been named after Tipu Sultan instead of Kempe Gowda. This created a furore among many people. Karnad apologised the following day.

Personal life

While working in Madras for Oxford University Press on his return from England, he met his future wife Saraswathi Ganapathy at a party. They decided to marry but the marriage was only formalised ten years later, when Karnad was 42 years old. Saraswathi was born to a Parsi mother, Nurgesh Mugaseth, and a Kodava Hindu father, Kodandera Ganapathy. The couple had two children. They lived in Bangalore.


He was a proponent of multi-culturalism and freedom of expression. He was a critic of religious fundamentalism. He had publicly condemned the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and later spoke against the attempts to create controversy about the Idgah Maidan in Hubli. He had opposed RSS, BJP and other organizations on several occasions. He opposed Narendra Modi for the Prime Minister's post in the 2014 parliament elections. He was one of the 200 writers who put out an open letter against hate politics and for “diverse and equal India” during the 2019 general elections. With a tube in his nose, he wore a placard saying "Me Too Urban Naxal" at the first death anniversary of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. Karnad claimed that Tipu Sultan was the greatest king Karnataka had in 500 years, on a religious controversy about the king. Karnad was a supporter of the Forum for Communal Harmony.


Karnad died on 10 June 2019 at Bengaluru at the age of 81 due to multiple organ failure following prolonged illness.

Movies directed

  • Vamsha Vriksha (1971, Kannada)
  • D.R. Bendre (1972, documentary)
  • Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane in (1977, Kannada)
  • Godhuli (1977, Hindi)
  • Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978, Kannada)
  • Kanooru Heggadithi (Kannada)
  • Kaadu (1973, Kannada)
  • Durga in Mahendar
  • Utsav (Hindi)
  • Woh Ghar (1984, Hindi), based on Kirtinath Kurtakoti's Kannada play Aa Mani
  • The Lamp in the Niche (1990) (documentary)
  • Cheluvi (1992, Kannada and Hindi (dubbed))
  • Chidambara Rahasya (2005, Kannada) (tv film for DD1)


  • Om Namo (A mini series for Dooradarshan, directed by K M Chaitanya)
  • Kusuma Bale (A mini series for Dooradarshan, directed by K M Chaitanya)

Other works

  • Evam Indrajit (English) by Badal Sircar. Tr. by Girish Karnad. 1974.

Works in translation

  • Yayati. Oxford University Press.
  • Yayati (Hindi). Tr. by B. R. Narayan. Rajkamal Prakashan Pvt Ltd, 2008. ISBN 81-7119-627-6.
  • Tughlaq: A play in 13 scenes, Oxford Univ. Press, 1972
  • Tughlaq ( Assamese )Translation Utpal Datta Assam Publication Board 2005
  • Nagamandala (Assamese) Translation Utpal DattaAssam Publication Board 2005
  • Hayavadana, Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • Tughlaq (Marathi), Tras. Vijay Tendulkar. Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 81-7185-370-6.
  • Three Plays: Naga-Mandala; Hayavadana; Tughlaq. Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-19-563765-8.
  • Tughlaq (Hindi). Tr. by B. V. Karanth. Rajkamal Prakashan Pvt Ltd, 2005. ISBN 81-7119-790-6.
  • Collected plays Vol 1: Tuglaq, Hayavadana, Bali: The Sacrifice, Naga-Mandala. Oxford University Press. 2005. ISBN 0-19-567310-7.
  • Collected Plays: Taledanda, the Fire and the Rain, the Dreams of Tipu Sultan, Flowers and Images: Two Dramatic Monologues: Flowers : Broken Images, Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, USA. 2005. ISBN 0-19-567311-5.
  • Three plays by Girish Karnad. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-563765-8.
  • Cheluvi (Assamese) Translation Utpal Datta


  • Aadaadtha Aayushya. Manohara Grantha Mala, 2011
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 03 May 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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